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Excerpt: Small Screen, Big Picture

'What makes programs attractive to networks and studios is different from what makes them attractive to writers. The best ideas are a synthesis of both'

By Chad Gervich - December 1, 2008
mediabistro.com is proud to excerpt its second book, Small Screen, Big Picture: A Writer's Guide To The TV Business. In it, television writer, producer and executive Chad Gervich breaks down how to navigate the industry, get inside the writer's room, design salable shows, and arm yourself with the tools for a lasting career.

Recipe for a TV Show
Creating a successful TV show is a monumental task. As we learned, the percentage of pitches that become hit shows is about one tenth of one percent. So whether you're the world's most seasoned showrunner or a brilliantly talented upstart, creating a hit requires the perfect combination of talent, hard work, timing, contacts, industry understanding, and -- most important -- blind luck.

Hollywood, after all, is filled with talented writers who have never had a hit series. And I'm not talking about the thousands of writers pounding out spec scripts or taking their shots at pitch festivals. I'm talking about writers who have sold movies. Writers who have sold novels. Writers who have written on staff for CSI, The Office, and 24. There are even writers who have created mega-hit, blockbuster TV shows -- then followed them up with enormous flops. Steven Bochco, co-creator of Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue, did Cop Rock and Blind Justice. David Kelley, of Boston Legal and Ally McBeal, did Wedding Bells and Girls Club. This doesn't tarnish their other brilliant achievements, it just proves there's no secret formula. There are, however, certain building blocks and ingredients most good shows seem to have. In this chapter we discuss the mechanics and terminology of TV writing and development. But first, the obvious question:

What makes a great TV show?
Compelling characters? Strong storylines? An interesting premise? Sure. But though each of those elements is necessary for a great story, there's a difference between a great story and great television. And by "great," I'm not just talking about the quality of an idea. I'm also talking about its marketability and salability. Lost may be an artful, innovative show, but it's a risky, almost unrepeatable model for a series (and it only makes it on the air when a power player like J. J. Abrams wants to do it). After all, what makes programs attractive to networks and studios is different from what makes them attractive to writers. The best ideas are a synthesis of both. And, while a storytelling medium, television is not the same as film. Or theater. Or novels.

In a novel or film, the story's over, well, when the story's over. Not so in TV, where characters come back every week and each episode is both a new story and a continuing saga. Thus, a good show, we often say, must have something very important: legs, or the ability to run, churning out stories, far into the future.

This doesn't mean there aren't successful shorter programs, or "one-offs" like movies and miniseries, designed to last a specific number of installments, but those aren't traditional series, and they're usually produced only as special events (TNT's Into the West, SciFi's The Lost Room, CBS's Elvis). Legs are the first thing a buyer looks at when considering a TV project. But there's another essential ingredient as well. Back in part I, we discussed how TV shows aren't designed to run, they're designed to rerun, often out of order, without losing dramatic value. Remember: studios, the owners and financiers of most scripted television, lose money on almost every series they produce -- until they sell it into syndication. Which means if your project can't be easily rerun, if it's too serialized or soapy, it can be unappetizing for a studio. So what's the second important ingredient of a sellable TV show?

Repeatability.

Those two fundamental qualities -- legs and repeatability -- account for most of TV's specific needs and nuances, rules and requirements.

In this section we'll discuss the five main storytelling components studios and networks also look for when gauging whether or not a series can go the distance: genre, premise, structure, characters, and voice.

Genre
At its most basic level, there are two types of scripted television: comedy and drama. Though the obvious difference is that comedies are (presumably) funny and dramas are (presumably) dramatic, television uses an even more specific distinction: comedies last half an hour; dramas last an hour. Even in today's TV landscape -- where shows like Ugly Betty and The Office blur the lines -- hour-long shows are usually developed by drama execs and half-hours are developed by comedy. Thus, comedies are often referred to as half-hours, and dramas as hours.

Comedies, or Half-Hours
There are two types of comedies: multicamera and single-­camera.

You'll recognize multi­camera shows as traditional sitcoms like Two and a Half Men, Rules of Engagement, Newhart, George Lopez, and Will & Grace. Multicams are performed straight through, on a stage, before a live audience, and the action is recorded by cameras set up at the periphery of the stage. You can also identify them by their limited number of sets and their laugh track. Single-camera shows, on the other hand, are shot like movies, using only one main camera. (They often use more than one camera to cover other angles, but there's only one primary camera.) Single-cams utilize multiple sets and locations, and there's no laugh track or audience. Think My Name Is Earl, Everybody Hates Chris, The Wonder Years, and Californication.

Within these categories, there are many different genres: family comedies like The Cosby Show and Everybody Loves Raymond, office comedies like Just Shoot Me and 30 Rock, ensemble (or "urban tribe") comedies like Friends and Seinfeld, romantic comedies like Mad About You and How I Met Your Mother.

Dramas, or Hours
Unlike comedies, all dramas are shot single-camera, but dramas also contain several of their own unique genres: procedurals, soaps, character-driven, and event dramas. And within these main genres are several subgenres: medical dramas like ER, legal shows like Eli Stone, action series like Knight Rider, family dramas like Brothers & Sisters, cop dramas like Law & Order: SVU, etc. Many shows even combine elements of different genres. Boston Legal is a character-driven "dramedy" (a show fusing both comedy and drama) that uses strong procedural elements. Supernatural tells procedural stories, but it also has character-driven elements that explore the family dynamics at its core. Here's a closer look at each genre.

Procedurals follow specific procedures to propel their characters through the story (Without a Trace, The Closer, Law & Order). Each week, CSI's Gil Grissom, Brenda Johnson, and Anita Van Buren follow one clue to the next until they solve the episode's mystery. Although procedurals are often crime stories, not every procedural centers on cops and criminals. House is a medical procedural. Shark is a legal procedural. Ghost Whisperer and Medium put supernatural spins on their mysteries. Monk and Psych look at detective procedurals through lighter, more comic lenses.

Studios like procedurals because each story begins and ends in the same hour, allowing them to air out of order and repeat more easily, making them prime products for syndication. Networks like them because audiences don't have to catch every episode in order to understand what's going on.

On the other end of the spectrum come soaps, shows whose stories spring from character interaction and relationships: Swingtown, One Tree Hill, Melrose Place. Unlike procedurals, soaps are highly serialized, meaning stories play out over many episodes, sometimes even months or seasons. What brings audiences back is their emotional investment in the lives of the show's characters.

While a juicy soap can gather huge audiences and run for years (à la ER, which started in 1994 and passed Dallas as America's longest-running primetime soap), networks and studios are sometimes hesitant to develop and program them. Because they can't easily air out of order, soaps are hard to syndicate, and without a formula to each episode, it's difficult for audiences to tune in once and understand what's happening. The result: many soaps die prematurely. Remember FOX's North Shore? Or the CW's Hidden Palms? Or ABC's Six Degrees? Don't worry -- neither does anyone else.

Like soaps, character-driven dramas (Rescue Me, The West Wing, Kyle XY) focus on characters and relationships, with one main distinction: character-driven shows tend to tell more-self-contained stories. This doesn't mean they don't use serialized elements; it simply means each episode is watchable on its own. Much of Grey's Anatomy, for instance, revolves around the soapy interactions of the Seattle Grace interns. But each episode is still buoyed by two things:

1. One or two patient-of-the-week stories. In every episode, the hospital admits a patient whose problem serves as that week's main story. Like a mini-procedural, it's begun, researched, and solved in the same hour.

2. Meredith Grey's thematic voice-over, which bookends each episode to give it shape and meaning.

Even if you've never seen another episode of Grey's Anatomy, these elements ensure that each hour will have its own beginning, middle, and end. The last category, event dramas, is a relatively recent addition to the TV landscape. Event dramas (Lost, Prison Break, 24) tell one story, or deal with one event, over the course of an entire season or series. They often have high-concept premises, like Threshold's alien invasion or The Nine's multifaceted bank robbery. Sometimes the series begins with the event, as in Jericho, and sometimes it builds to the event, à la Heist.

Event dramas are usually highly serialized, and if viewers want to appreciate the whole story, they must tune in for every episode. This makes event dramas difficult for networks to program, and even more difficult for studios to syndicate -- which, unfortunately, TV-makers have learned the hard way.

Between 2005 (one year after Lost became a TV phenomenon) and 2007, television exploded with no fewer than fourteen event dramas:

  • Surface -- NBC (2005)
  • Threshold -- CBS (2005)
  • Invasion -- ABC (2005)
  • Prison Break -- FOX (2005)
  • Reunion -- FOX (2005)
  • Kidnapped -- NBC (2006)
  • Heist -- NBC (2006)
  • Jericho -- CBS (2006)
  • The Nine -- ABC (2006)
  • Day Break -- ABC (2006)
  • Runaway -- CW (2006)
  • Vanished -- FOX (2006)
  • Drive -- FOX (2007)
  • Traveler -- ABC (2007)

    Of the fourteen shows on that list, only one -- Prison Break -- wasn't canceled after its first season. And most -- Heist, Kidnapped, The Nine, Reunion, Day Break, Runaway, Vanished, Drive -- were canceled before finishing their initial orders. (Jericho, to be fair, was canceled, then resurrected for a seven-episode reprieve, which fared no better than its first run.)

    The networks even toyed with "event comedies." ABC took a nosedive with Big Day, a 2006 half-hour about a young couple trying to survive their wedding. And it found only slightly more success with The Knights of Prosperity, which followed the hijinx of amateur criminals attempting to burgle Mick Jagger.

    "Serialized stuff takes a lot more investment," says Gaurav Misra, vice president of programming for VH1 and MTV. "You have to give them a lot longer run to pick up an audience, [and] there's less repeat potential as you can't repeat stuff out of sequence, whereas you can air procedurals in any order you want."

    So what does all this mean for TV creators and developers? It means studios and networks will be buying a lot fewer event dramas. The 2007 fall schedule didn't have a single one (not counting returning shows like Prison Break), and while networks picked up several high-concept programs (Moonlight, The Bionic Woman, New Amsterdam, Reaper, Chuck), each used self-contained episodes.

    So what should creators and developers focus on instead? The bread and butter of television.

    "We're always talking about finding the [next] great stand-alone show," says Dana Shelburne, a VP of development at 20th Century Fox. "Not necessarily procedural, but stand-alone episodes. It still has a life on DVD. It gives you an opportunity for syndication. And it works well for international."

    Premise
    A series' premise refers to a series' most basic overarching story. Cheers is a series about "a group of people held together by friendships formed at their neighborhood bar." Heroes "chronicles the lives of ordinary people who discover they possess extraordinary abilities" (according to its NBC website).

    There are several elements that go into making and identifying a strong TV premise.

    First of all, a premise should be easy to articulate quickly and succinctly, and it should be instantly understandable at its simplest level. The Criminal Minds website says the show "revolves around an elite team of FBI profilers who analyze the country's most twisted criminal minds, anticipating their next moves before they strike again." It's short, uncluttered, and you immediately grasp the series' story: good guys use special psychological skills to capture bad guys.

    A great premise also sparks conflict. You know from the Criminal Minds premise that the show revolves around its good-guys-versus-bad-guys concept. On the other hand, simply describing "a small town of strange events, fantastical inventions, and off-kilter scientists" doesn't set up a strong premise, because it doesn't catalyze actual conflict. However, "an unorthodox sheriff attempts to rebuild his life in a small town of strange events, fantastical inventions, and off-kilter scientists" describes more than just the geography of SciFi's Eureka. It tells us there will be ongoing conflict as Eureka's sheriff, Jack Carter, attempts to maintain peace and put himself back together in a bizarre town full of unsettling incidents.

    A good TV premise also ­doesn't define only one conflict; it generates an infinite number of other conflicts. It illustrates the series' legs. In Criminal Minds, each new criminal provides a new conflict. Eureka has as many stories as residents, ensuring it'll never exhaust its fodder.

    Finally, a premise articulates how the show functions emotionally and thematically, how it taps in to its audience's larger issues and feelings.

    "Friends," says Friends executive producer Adam Chase, "was about a specific time in your life when you're not a kid anymore, yet you're not quite an adult, either. You don't have your own family, so your friends are your family. It's very specific -- and it's very universal. Everybody goes through it. If you're older, you remember going through it. If you're younger, you look forward to going through it. So that's your launching pad."

    Thus, Friends' premise might read, "Six friends, just starting out in life, go through bad dates, horrible jobs, and crappy relationships, but no matter what life throws at them, they know the one thing they have to get them through... is each other."

    Structure
    Structurally, TV series fall into two categories: serialized or stand-alone.

    Because the success of serialized shows depends on their ability to maintain audiences' interest in long-­running storylines, their stories usually have rich backdrops and extensive histories. These are called the series' mythology, or lore, and writers slowly reveal bits and pieces to lure viewers along.

    Sometimes a show's lore focuses on mysteries or secrets. Each season of Desperate Housewives, for example, introduces a new mystery for the housewives to solve (Mary Alice's suicide, the prisoner in Betty's basement, Dylan Mayfair's bizarre past). This is called the "season arc," because the story arcs over the entire season. Other mythologies are broad, intricate backstories. Gilmore Girls's mythology involves the tempestuous relationship between Lorelai and her parents: how she got pregnant, ran away, and kept them from seeing their granddaughter.

    Stand-alone shows are those in which each episode is a complete, self-contained story. Most shows operate this way, from comedies like The Big Bang Theory to procedurals like Cold Case. Although many shows incorporate serialized elements, like Jim and Pam's romance in The Office, stand-alones tend to be more emotionally satisfying and easier to syndicate.

    So how do writers create a show that produces self-contained episodes? One way is to give the show a franchise. In fact, when you're pitching your series to network or studio execs, they'll often ask, "What's your franchise? Is there a franchise?" This is one of every executive's favorite questions. So… what the hell is it?

    Franchises
    First of all, let's talk about what a franchise is not. Many people think a franchise is a series that can be spun off into various incarnations, like CSI, CSI: New York, and CSI: Miami. While these are indeed types of franchises, a franchise -- in the world of TV development -- is something completely different.

    A franchise is a literary device that allows new stories to be introduced organically, week after week. Most often it's a job or job setting that allows for endless parades of stories. Cops and detectives make great franchises because every case presents a new story. You never have to explain where stories come from on a cop show; the very nature of being a cop produces new cases, crooks, and victims, each with a new tale to tell. Hospitals work the same way; each patient presents a new problem or story. So do lawyers and legal shows.

    "Hard" procedurals, shows driven completely by procedure rather than character, always have a franchise, but many non-procedurals use franchises as well. Psych and Angel use detective agencies, and because new clients bring new cases, executives and audiences never wonder how these shows will generate storylines in seasons six, seven, or twenty-nine. (Ironically, Angel switched its franchise in season five, when Angel, Gunn, Lorne, and Fred went to work for Wolfram & Hart, a law firm.)

    Franchises not only generate endless stand-alone episodes, they help series survive architectural and cosmetic changes. Characters can leave, locations may change, but a good franchise ensures that a series will always have stories. Law & Order has survived a constantly kaleidoscoping cast thanks to its infallible crime-of-the-week franchise. And when actors George Eads and Jorja Fox threatened to leave CSI in 2004 if they weren't paid more money, CBS refused to negotiate. As the network knew, the star of CSI isn't an actor or character, but the format.

    Think about franchises that could be appropriate for your shows. Not every idea needs one, but it makes projects more attractive to buyers. And a franchise doesn't have to be a doctor, lawyer, or cop. Writers and producers are constantly thinking up new jobs and setups to deliver compelling stories. My Name Is Earl has Earl's list. Joan of Arcadia receives missions from God. Buffy the Vampire Slayer faces off against weekly monsters and demons. The more creative you can be in inventing your own franchises, the better chances your shows have of selling -- and surviving.

    Characters
    "The thing that sets shows apart," says Andy Bourne, senior vice president of development at the Littlefield Company, former NBC president Warren Littlefield's production company at ABC Studios, "is the people that live in that world. Everyone's done a spy show, everyone's done a medical show, everyone's done a cop show. [But] Vic Mackey on The Shield is a different kind of cop. You'd never seen that cop on television, and it's an interesting character to watch. House… there's never been a doctor on television like House. Ultimately it's that personality that affects how that [character] goes about solving a case or healing a patient. That's ultimately what makes the show new, interesting, and different."

    Indeed, from House's misanthropic doc to CSI: Miami's swaggering Horatio Caine, it's a program's characters that allow us to relate to a show and view it as a reflection of our own lives. So creating honest, compelling characters (which doesn't necessarily mean they're likable, as Tony Soprano and Nip/Tuck's Christian Troy can attest) is a vital part of developing a series.

    TV shows have three types of characters: regulars, recurring, and guests. Regulars are a show's main characters -- or, more specifically, the actors who are contractually obligated to appear in a certain number of episodes. Most regulars appear in every episode. Others appear in a limited number, so these are called seven-out-of-thirteens or ten-out-of-thirteens, referring to the number of episodes to which they're contracted. Most first-season shows have four to eight regulars. Shark began with Sebastian, Julie, Raina, Casey, Madeline, Isaac, Martin, and Jessica. The Big Bang Theory began with Leonard, Sheldon, Penny, Howard, and Raj.

    Recurring characters don't appear in every show, and they don't usually have a series contract, but they continually reappear. In The Office, the lecherous Todd Packer isn't a main character, but he pops up from time to time to terrorize the folks at Dunder-Mifflin. This is different from someone who's a seven-out-of-thirteen, because the actor (David Koechner) has a separate contract for each episode. Recurring characters aren't integral parts of series; the writers simply like them and keep writing them in.

    Guests appear in only one or two episodes, and they're usually tied directly to the A-story, which is the main story of an episode. When Steven Weber guest-­starred on Monk's season five premiere, "Mr. Monk Is On the Air," he played a DJ suspected of murdering his wife. He appeared in only one episode, but his character was the basis for the episode's A-story, or primary storyline.

    As you're designing your series, focus on your regulars. Regulars are not only the main characters, they're the source of most of the show's stories. Thus, your job is to populate your world with compelling characters who -- like a great premise -- generate an endless number of conflicts between themselves and the world around them. In the first season of Heroes, most episodes didn't focus on Claire, Peter, and Hiro battling villains and outside forces; they focused on the arguments and confrontations that sprang up among the regulars themselves. Claire and Mr. Bennet went head-to-head about her social life, her birth parents, and how to protect her mom. Hiro and Ando debated how to work together. Nathan and Peter fought about their parents.

    According to how its characters function, a show might be described as either an ensemble show or a single-lead show. Ensembles tell stories about an entire group. The A-story of an episode of The Big Bang Theory, for instance, could focus on Leonard, Sheldon, Wolowitz, or Koothrappali -- or all four of them together.

    Single-lead shows focus on one main character. Saving Grace is a "character-driven police drama with a female lead"; 24 is a "serialized action show with a male lead at the center." This doesn't mean there's only one regular; it just means each episode's A-story is seen from that lead's perspective. The cast of Everybody Hates Chris includes the entire Rock family, but the central character is still Chris. He drives the action of the episode, and everything that happens is seen from his point of view and concerns events surrounding his life.

    Some single-lead shows are talent-driven, like Seinfeld or The Bill Engvall Show, where the series is developed around one particular performer. These shows have other characters, but their premises are designed to showcase the personalities of their stars. Like Roseanne and George Lopez, most talent-driven programs stem from the talent deals networks and studios make each development season.

    As you're creating your show's cast of characters, it's essential to know how they function as a unit (are they an ensemble? is one person the main lead?), as well as how each person functions within that unit. Thus, approach your characters in two ways: defining who they are as individuals, and defining who they are in the context of their relationships.

    Defining who they are as individuals. It's always fun -- and necessary -- to figure out the details of each character: where they were born, how they grew up, what their favorite ice cream is. But these aren't the pieces of information that truly bring your characters to life. They may help us form a mental picture, but in order to fully animate each person, it's important to give each of them his or her own unique perspective and worldview.

    Friends' Ross, for instance, is a paleontologist who believes the world is constructed of science, math, and logic -- making it difficult for him to navigate awkward emotional situations. Ross couldn't tell his first wife was a lesbian, he jumped out the window when his parents caught him smoking pot, and he blurted out Rachel's name at his wedding to Emily. Each of these examples illustrates how Ross's emotional ineptitude leads to uncomfortable situations and comic behavior, but the writers first had to understand how that character perceived the world.

    Defining each character in the context of his/her relationships. People are rarely interesting in and of themselves; they become interesting when they begin interacting with those around them. Ross, in other words, may have an interesting worldview, but we don't start to understand how that worldview affects the show until we explain that the love of Ross's life is Rachel, a spoiled rich girl who -- unlike thoughtful, pragmatic Ross -- often acts impulsively, with little regard for consequences. Rachel represents everything Ross abhors; she's irresponsible, self-indulgent, irrational. Yet Ross can't resist her. He pursues her at every turn, not only causing him to constantly rethink his own perspective, but forcing him to act in embarrassing (and hilarious) ways. This relationship works because it generates conflict and mirrors many relationships in the real world. We see ourselves in Ross's actions as we watch him fumbling through relationships and dilemmas we've experienced ourselves.

    Voice, or point of view
    Having said all this, there's one element of your show that's often more important than all the others, one element that sets it apart and makes it utterly unique and irresistible, that -- no matter what happens, no matter how the project changes or who else comes aboard -- can't be taken away. That element is…

    You.

    Or, as we like to say in television, your "voice," or point of view.

    No matter what you've heard about projects being stolen or writers getting fired, if you've done your job correctly, your project will be completely undoable without you.

    Why?

    Because everyone on this planet has a story to tell, and no two stories are exactly the same. We've all had our own set of inimitable life experiences, so we all see the world a bit differently.

    Your job, as an artist, is to figure out exactly how you see the world -- then to articulate that to others. This is true whether you're a writer working in television, a sculptor working with clay, a painter working with oils. The great artists -- from Magritte to The Clash to David Chase -- see the world in unique, vibrant ways, and they know how to convey that vision to others. Through their work, we're able to experience -- ever so briefly -- life as someone else, and find the common bonds that make us human.

    Think about some of your favorite TV writers. How do they see the world? How do their worldviews permeate their series?

    To Chris Carter, creator of The X-Files, The Lone Gunmen, Harsh Realm, and Millennium, the world's a sinister place where free will is all but nonexistent. Everything we do is watched -- and controlled -- by omnipotent power brokers. Whether it's fighting The X-Files's Syndicate or navigating the postapocalyptic Harsh Realm, we're all pawns in someone else's master plan.

    How about comedian Bernie Mac and writer Larry Wilmore, the voices behind The Bernie Mac Show? Television had seen countless family comedies from a father's point of view, but to Mac and Wilmore, parenthood is neither the warm adventure of Father Knows Best nor the frustrating political struggle of Everybody Loves Raymond. To Mac and Wilmore, parenthood is an unwanted nuisance that's thrust upon us, and the best way to deal with it is forcefully and unwaveringly (which also reflects the show's narrative premise, since Bernie isn't actually his "kids' " father; he begrudgingly adopts them from his wayward sister).

    Pinpointing your show's voice, or your own point of view, can take hard work and soul-searching. I think of it like this: "When you wake up in the morning and put on your glasses, what does the world look like?" And once you know this, how can you let other people see the same thing? There's no right or wrong answer. No blueprint. There are, however, exercises and tools you can use to strengthen your voice and find what makes you special as an artist.

    "Finding your voice is figuring out what kinds of stories you want to tell," says Chase. "What are your favorite movies, TV shows, and books? What kinds of stories do you tell your friends? Are they essentially funny or essentially dramatic? That should tell you whether your interest is comedy or drama. And beyond that, what's your view of the world? Is there a part of your life that was particularly interesting or memorable? Often there will be an autobiographical element to a writer's work, but there doesn't need to be, and it doesn't always need to be obvious. Edgar Allan Poe was claustrophobic and made a living writing stories about being buried alive." As you study movies, books, and pieces of art, scribble notes about how the work illuminates the creator's view of the world. How does J. K. Row­ling see the world in Harry Potter? How about Edvard Munch in The Scream? Judd Apatow in Knocked Up? (And by the way -- words like "scary" or "funny" do not explain the artist's vision; they explain your reaction to the art. Apatow doesn't see the world as "funny," he sees it as a place where -- no matter how focused or unfocused you are -- fate throws you horrific curveballs. Life, according to Knocked Up, is about how we navigate those curveballs -- whether an unexpected baby, the discovery of a spouse's fantasy baseball league, or the realization that your business idea has already been done.)

    Keep a journal, a private place where you can record your darkest, most dangerous thoughts. A writing teacher once told me, "When you're writing at your desk, and you're praying no one walks in and reads it -- that's when you know you're doing your best work." Give yourself the luxury of having a place to do that. Have a notebook only you know exists, and fill it with all the things you'll never show anyone else. And don't just write in it; read your answers. How does the world look to the person who wrote them? What does this say about you?

    Record conversations. Eavesdrop in public places. When you have a fight with your mother, your boyfriend, your wife -- write it down. You'll not only start seeing natural rhythms of dialogue, you'll realize how you function and interact with other people. You'll also spot similarities in situations you pick up. Do you gravitate toward lovers' quarrels? Quirky flirtations? Frustrating, inarticulate diatribes? In other words, you'll start to notice how you see the world.

    As you develop your voice, the more honest and articulate you can be, the more audiences will understand and relate to your life experience. The more they'll see the world through your eyes. This is the element that, if executed successfully, makes you virtually inextricable from the project. It's also why television, unlike film, is often referred to as a "writer-driven" medium, whereas film is usually a "director-driven" medium. Movies are finite experiences; each story last two hours and it's over, never to be repeated or continued again (sequels notwithstanding). So film executives can hear an idea from a writer, love it, and bring in another writer to write the script. Since it only happens once, they just need the best possible writer for that particular idea. A director then brings the screenplay to life according to his own unique vision. But in television, the writer doesn't tell just one story; he tells a new story, with the same characters, every week. (TV directors, in fact, are rarely expected to bring unique visions to their work, since most episodes must be visually and stylistically consistent with the rest of the series. Thus, if executives love a writer's vision for the show, they need -- and expect -- him to guide and inform every episode of the series. Which is why you need to make sure your vision is so specific and unique it can't be executed without you. If you're worried you may be expendable, then you haven't developed your vision enough to keep you from being expendable.

    This is your goal as a storyteller, whether telling tales in the pages of a novel, in the acts of a teleplay, or in a series pitch to network executives. The more confident your voice as a writer, the more powerful your audience's experience -- and the better your odds of selling a show.

    Now, let's talk about those odds and how to get your show sold...

    Reprinted from Chapter 6 "Recipe for a TV Show" of Small Screen Big Picture, by Chad Gervich, copyright 2008 by mediabistro.com, Inc., published by Three Rivers Press, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.


    Chad Gervich has worked as a TV writer, producer, and executive. He's written, developed, and produced shows for the Littlefield Company, Fox Television Studios, Paramount Television, NBC, Warner Bros., ABC, Fox Reality Channel, E! Entertainment Television, and 20th Century Fox. Click here to order Small Screen, Big Picture.

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